I’d like to call anyone who says that they aren’t in the slightest bit interested in the Kung Fu/Martial Arts genre a liar. It’s gone through so many different heroes, villains, transitions, and changes. The evolution from cheap film making with unknown fighters, to films with multimillion dollar budgets and big name fighters is as interesting as it is entertaining. What better way to observe this change than with the Chen Zhen films? These films has seen the likes of Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and finally Donnie Yen.
Let’s start with the 1972 film, Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection.
Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) returns to the Jingwu School in the Shanghai International Settlement to find his master has been murdered, and the perpetrators belong to the rival Japanese school. This is a time of racism where the Japanese want nothing to do with the Chinese and will do anything to get rid of them. In response to the murder of his master and the pent up rage against racism, Chen Zhen begins a one man war against the rival school in search for vengeance and equality.
Bruce Lee is one of, if not the master of kung fu, and the exceptional choreography of the fight scenes (choreographed by Lee, himself) is stunning. My favorite scene involves Lee, a pair of nun chucks, and a whole dojo of Japanese students. Lee wields this weapon like there is hardly any skill involved. That along with his lighting fast arsenal of punches and kicks makes this character an almost unstoppable force.
The themes of racism and social acceptance also brings much more depth to the story rather than a simple revenge tale. Zhen is fighting for more than vengeance, and this passion shows in the way Lee handles himself. He was known to be not only a martial artist, but also a philosopher, and these lessons of equality shine like glitter amongst the action.
Leaving out the horrible dubbing that I had to listen to, this is a kung fu masterpiece. The set design looks good, if not a little dated, but this adds to its retro charm. Its social commentary and outstanding fight scenes will continue to make this film an entertaining piece of Chinese cinema. Take it seriously. It’s a great movie.
In 1994, a remake of Fist of Fury was released starring Jet Le, Fist of Legend.
I don’t really need to go too into detail with the story since it is very similar to the 1972 version. Chen Zhen returns to the Jingwu school in Shanghai, which is torn to pieces due to social inequality. His master is murdered and he then quests for revenge. The main differences is that there is a love story between Chen and a Japanese woman, and some infighting that takes place in the school. The villain is also a general and not master of a dojo.
Now, let me start by saying that the production values in this one are a hell of a lot better than the original. There’s a bigger cast of better actors, and the sets looks quite fancy, but I felt like Fist of Fury still pulled off the entire story and its themes better. Jet Li is still a very good Chen Zhen and he adds a new layer of quiet brutality to his fighting. Bones snap and foes are left as bruised as ever if they get in Chen’s way.
One thing that is better about Fist of Legend is the suspense of the fight scenes. There are elongated battles that seem like they can’t and won’t end leaving the viewer doubtful as to what is actually going to happen. I do have to say that even though Jet Li is an excellent martial artist, I prefer the speeding bullet style fighting that Bruce Lee mastered. The love story is also a little too overbearing and I didn’t really care much for the rest of the supporting cast.
While this doesn’t top the original, I will say that it is still and excellent martial arts film and one to be respected. If you’re trying to decide between the two to watch, I would suggest Fist of Fury, but then I would follow up with the suggestion of watching both so you’re able to compare for yourself.
Finally, in 2010, a sequel to Fist of Legend was released, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.
After serving in World War I, Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen) returns to Japanese-occupied Shanghai in disguise. He befriend a nightclub owner and buries himself deep in the underworld and the resistance in order to bring an end to the violence that is being cause by the Japanese. When night falls, Chen becomes the Masked Man and takes to the streets as a hero the city needs.
Hmmm. This is a strange movie indeed. Take everything you’ve seen in the previous two movies, throw it out the window, and brace yourself for a huge change in pace. This is a martial arts/spy/super hero movie with a plot as convoluted as it is different. There were time where I had no idea what was going on in the movie and more than once did I lose track of the characters. Most of this is due to the relentlessly quick pace of the movie.
But, hell, I was certainly entertained the entire way through the movie. The action sequences are absolutely awesome with Donnie Yen, dressed exactly like Kato, flying all over the place and kicking people in the heads. It’s great. There is a lot of talking to get through before these scenes, so it’s a good thing that everything looks so cool. The nightclub, Casablanca, that a large portion of the movie takes place in is gorgeous with flashing lights and fun music. It’s like Boardwalk Empire: Shanghai.
Donnie Yen proves himself to be a great Chen Zhen, I’d say even better than Jet Li, but Bruce still is the best. The plot of this movie is a little too off the wall to be really respected and the pacing is way too quick, but the action and the overall style of the movie is awesome. This isn’t a great movie, but it sure is fun.
Chen Zhen is the epitome of martial arts characters and the themes covered in the movies can never be dated. They are also a true testament to the changes that this genre goes through over the decades. Check these movies out if you’re a kung fu fan, and if you’re new to the fu, this is a good place to start.